There has been quite a lot of criticism about the Lions’ stopover in Hong Kong, particularly regarding the searing, steamy conditions in which they had to play. However, those young bankers/FILTH lucky enough to have been at the Hong Kong stadium will have enjoyed not only the extraordinary beauty of Steve Walsh and Sergio Parisse on the same pitch, but also the outstanding Baabaas try from Kahn Fotauali’i – Rococoko’s sidestep that made the try was worth the cost of the business class flight alone. Fotaulai’i’s 20-yard pass immediately prior to that also made a mockery of some of the shocking handling by some of the Lions’ backs, especially Maitland and Farrell.
Regrettably, the Barbarians had little else to offer. Although their effort levels were much improved from their lacklustre outing at Twickenham, they were fatally undermined by the abject performance of their front row. I certainly wouldn’t want to take anything away from the magnificent Adam Jones, but Castro’s travails against Mako Vunipola of all people demonstrated that he is far from the force he once was – frankly I’m not surprised that Boudjellai balked at Leicester’s asking price.
With the Baabaas conceding penalties at every scrum, they could not bring their exciting backs into the game. The dangerous Ngwenya barely touched the ball and the magnificent Rococoko only really got hold of it once the game was over. Consequently, I think we learnt little from the game.
Mike Phillips had an excellent game playing as the 4th back-row - he really is an outstanding rugby player. Regrettably, his passing remains hit and miss and I am not at all convinced that he will allow Jonny Sexton to do what he does best.
Tipuric had another fine game, further confirming my view that the selection of Warburton as captain was deeply flawed. For me, the nailed on test starters are Hairy Adam, POC, Tipuric, Sexton and Jamie Roberts. Of those, POC is the stand-out captain.
To confirm the point, O’Connell continued his outstanding form from the end of the season leading by example with another captain fantastic performance. The entire Irish contingent had a good day. Murray looked very good when he came on for deserved man-of-the-match Phillips. Healy was as good as ever and looks a test starter to me. Heaslip had little opportunity to shine but went well in the lineout: the competition with Faletau will be fierce and whilst the Tongan was solid, Heaslip remains in firmly contention.
Jonny Sexton looked very sharp and had the backline purring after a stuttering performance from Farrell. Supporters of the young Fez-man will point to his better success rate off the tee. However, Sexton’s misses all came from wide out on the right and he struck all of them well, missing narrowly on each occasion. Farrell did kick a stunning 50m penalty just before the interval, under a bit of self-imposed pressure having snatched the ball from the eager Hogg, but missed a regulation penalty by some distance in the first quarter. Some of his kicking from hand was poor (though some was also very good) but his passing was dire. The Sky fan club was quick to point out how wet the ball was due to the extreme humidity, but it didn’t seem to stop Fotauali’I throwing accurate 20m passes.
Most worryingly, Farrell’s temperament was called into question in an altercation with his club-mate Schalk Brits. The Bok hooker, having asked Farrell ‘politely’ twice to desist from illegally holding him, aimed a haymaker at the standoff’s chin. Unfortunately he only made a glancing connection but the red-mist descended and Farrell retaliated. Luckily, the impeccably handsome Steve Walsh went to the video ref and overturned the penalty he had awarded to the Baabaas under the posts and sent Brits to the bin. Farrell should have joined him; instead he jeered and clapped as his opponent left the field. What this incident confirmed is that Farrell is in the same bracket as Ashton and Hartley when it comes to temperament and could be a liability. The need for Jonny to remain fit is as great as ever.
Elsewhere, I thought Hogg was excellent and Kearney is going to have his work cut out to force his way into contention. Unfortunately, for Hogg’s club-mate on the wing, it was not such a good day. Maitland looked distinctly ordinary, spurning a chance early on when it seemed easier to score when chasing Farrell’s grubber, and falling way short in some of the basics, most notably his passing.
On the other wing, Cuthbert looked very sharp, scoring a brace of classic winger’s tries. He will push Tommy Bowe hard for the test shirt, but I think Bowe brings slightly more and should start.
As for Ulster’s other tourist, I don’t think it was a bad day at all for Rory Best. Neither Hibbard nor Youngs were outstanding out of touch, with the Leicester hooker continuing his poor throwing form from Twickenham last week. Rory still has it all to do, but a vintage performance on Wednesday could put him into pole position. Let’s hope so.
Finally, putting my grumpiest Victor Meldrew hat on, I really did not enjoy watching a South African who has retired from international rugby, displaying his lack of prowess in a Lions shirt. Let’s hope Matt Stevens’ post-match singing is better than his scrummaging.